Editorials by Sangharakshita

 
 

Unity is Strength

This editorial first appeared in The Maha Bodhi, July 1954

The Dharma taught by the Lord Buddha is in its essence Sanatana, eternal, being based not on mythology or unverifiable dogma, but on truths which can be tested and verified in their own experience by all who are prepared to dedicate their lives to the attempt. But though the Dharma remains the same age after age, the framework of events within which it finds its temporal manifestation is inevitably subject to change, so that in almost every generation the Dharma has to face and solve, albeit in the same unchanging spirit, the fresh problems which press upon it from all corners of the contemporary world.

The problem of our age and generation is the collapse, in many parts of the world, of what we may term the traditional way of life. People no longer care for religion (by which we mean the active recognition of an order of values higher than those pertaining to the body and the lower mind). They are either hostile to it or merely indifferent. A wave of overt or covert materialism has engulfed many people in many lands, in the East no less than in the West, and threatens to roll on claiming fresh victims.

In circumstances such as these Buddhism has to rally all its forces if the Dharma of the Enlightened One, too, is not to be overwhelmed and swept away with the flotsam and jetsam of other traditions. Unity, as Aesop pointed out in his Fable of the Quarrelsome Brothers and the Bundle of Sticks, is strength, and if the Buddhist world wishes to resist the onrushing tides of materialism, whether dialectically naked or clad in a decent garment of pseudo-idealism, it must be prepared to stand together. We do not mean that genuine differences of doctrine as between one school of Buddhism and another should be minimized or ignored. What we mean is that the fundamental spiritual basis of all schools of Buddhism, namely the Four Truths (Chatvari Arya Satyani), Dependent Origination (Pratitya-samutpada), and the Three Characteristics (Tri-lakshana) of Suffering (Duhkha), Impermanence (Anitya) and Non-Ego (Anatman) should be recognised as of far greater significance than secondary doctrinal differences, to say nothing of mere differences in social customs and 'ecclesiastical millinery'. We should cease inquiring about the colour of robes and the cut of hair, and look instead at the heart and at the life. External things do not make one a Buddhist any more than they make one a Brahmin. Those who emphasise superficial differences at the expense of fundamental unity are weakening the whole Buddhist movement. Unwittingly they are making in the dyke of the Dharma a breach through which the rushing mighty waters of materialism may one day roll with full force and fury. Be the crack in the wall of our unity ever so small, we must hasten to seal it up before it widens beyond hope of repair.

 

Two such cracks we have observed recently, one in the March issue of the Sangayana Monthly Bulletin, the other in the Sangayana Souvenir published by the Union of Burma Buddha Sasana Council in commemoration of the inauguration on Vaisakha Purnima this year of what they term the Sixth Great Buddhist Council. On page 3 of the former issue of this publication we read that a certain 'fervent Mahayanist, was converted to pristine Buddhism'. We are not concerned to contest the claim that Theravada Buddhism on the whole represents an earlier tradition than the Mahayana, or to deny the possibility of a follower of the Buddha transferring his allegiance from one school to the other with perfectly valid reasons for so doing. The word 'Conversion', however, is generally understood to connote not a change from one branch of a religion to another branch, but from one religion to another, and what pains and surprises us in the above quotation is its adroit insinuation that Mahayanists are not Buddhists at all. Even when the word 'conversion' is used by Christians, for instance by Roman Catholics and Seventh Day Adventists, to describe the coming over of a follower of another Christian sect to their own denomination, it carries the unpleasant suggestion that members of the sect to which the 'convert' formerly belonged are doomed to eternal perdition (or, as the Adventists believe, to eventual total combustion, which they consider a very charitable view). As far as we know, neither of these views is entertained by Buddhists, even in Burma, and the use of the word 'conversion' in this connection was, to say the least of it, extremely unfortunate. We should not be astonished to learn that the writer of the report in question was a westerner who has not yet succeeded in ridding himself of Christian concepts.

Turning to the Sangayana Souvenir, we find that the first article of this otherwise wholly admirable production is headed 'Another Page of Buddhist History. Five countries preserve the Buddha-Dhamma against the Materialists'. According to this article (we hope no scholar in Buddhism ever reads it) the Five Buddhist Councils of Theravada tradition were held to combat five successive waves of materialism. With the first, third, fourth and fifth councils we are not concerned. What we should like to point out, however, is that, according to reliable scholars, the Second Council was held to refute ten points put forward by the monks of Vaisali. These monks, on being excluded from the council, formed themselves into a school (acariyavada) known as the Mahasanghikas. It was among the Mahasanghikas that the Mahayana movement arose. We can now understand that the writer of the article (anonymous, of course, as such articles usually are, not even the name of the editor or editors appearing anywhere in the magazine) is trying to suggest in his section on the Second Great Council: that Mahayanists are materialists, and that the previous five councils are only so many attempts at combating the contemporary equivalent of Communism - a reading of history which seems as crude as that of the Marxists themselves.

Combining the two extracts to which reference has been made, and rendering fully explicit what they dared only to suggest, we are confronted by the extraordinary statement that Mahayanists are not Buddhists, and that Mahayana Buddhism, which in its Vijnanavada and Sunyavada forms elaborated the most highly idealistic and uncompromisingly spiritual philosophies known to mankind, is - materialism. Could even Christian ignorance and bigotry have gone farther than that? Such, apparently, being the view of those responsible for the production of the Sangayana, we were hardly surprised to learn that at the Sixth Great Buddhist (sic) Council Mahayana priests (they must never be called monks) were not treated with much ceremony. In fact they were seated not with the Theravadin bhikkhus but with the laity. We are quite aware that for purely technical reasons it would not have been possible to seat 'priests' who were not conversant with Pali together with those whose sacred duty it was to recite the Pali texts. But surely the members of the Mahayana Sangha (who, by the way, treated their Theravadin brethren with such wonderful hospitality during the Second Session of the World Fellowship of Buddhists held in Japan in 1952) could have been seated separately from the laity, and the danger of a grievous misunderstanding with the whole Mahayana world thereby avoided. To invite guests and then to insult them would be regarded as a sin by even the most ignorant Buddhist layman, and that so august a body as a Buddhist Council should have been guilty of so deplorable a lapse not only from the spirit of Buddhism but even from ordinary good manners is a matter for the greatest astonishment.

It should not be thought that we are unaware of the importance of the work of textual revision which is being done by the Sixth Great Buddhist Council, or that we have anything save unbounded respect and admiration for U Nu and other members of the Union Government of Burma, thanks to whose devotion the whole grand enterprise has been planned and executed. Our only motive in making the above remarks - though doubtless others will be attributed to us by interested persons - was regret that the perfect accomplishment of so magnificent an undertaking should be predjudiced in even the smallest degree. Those who are seeking to combat, by means of Buddhism, materialism in all its forms, are no doubt doing humanity in general and the Buddhist world in particular a great service. But let then remember that unity is strength, and that by decrying and condemning fellow-Buddhists they are only cutting the branch on which they themselves are sitting, thus running the risk of falling headlong into that abyss of materialism from which they are now so anxious to save others.